Welcome to Our Grilling, President Karzai
By Al Kamen
[Washignton Post - March 3, 2003; Page A17]:
No foreign head of state had testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in recent memory, current and former committee aides say. And last week, after the disastrous appearance of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai -- said to be furious and insulted by the event -- it's clear why not.
Traditionally, foreign leaders have gone to the Hill to meet with committee members in the ornate room S-116 in the Capitol. There, at a long, linen-covered table, with flowers and snacks and such, the senators and the visiting dignitary chat, sometimes frankly, about matters of state.
These gatherings are always private; no records are kept. Afterward, the visiting official and some committee members might go out for a photo-op and maybe a few media questions.
But Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) thought it would be a great idea to have Karzai appear Wednesday before the committee in its hearing room, 419, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
"Because of the enormous challenges your government is facing and the importance of Afghanistan to our country," he told Karzai in opening the session, "I thought we should break with committee practice and conduct this meeting in public."
An open meeting would allow media coverage to counter committee concerns that Americans had forgotten about Afghanistan and Osama what's-his-name and that one-eyed mullah fellow. So now the massive C-SPAN audience would be reminded. A committee source said the new venue and arrangements were worked out in consultation with the Embassy of Afghanistan.
The event would be billed as a "meeting," not a "hearing," Lugar said in a Feb. 13 letter to Karzai, though that distinction was lost on anyone watching television.
The room layout will be changed "to reflect your status as President of Afghanistan," Lugar promised, and "every effort will be made to ensure that your position as Head of State is reflected during your appearance and in our dialogue."
Maybe they should have tried harder. The optics, as former Democratic and Republican staffers agreed, were horrific. There was Karzai at the witness table looking up at the committee members much as if he were some random think-tanker.
And then there were the committee members, falling into their familiar routine of grilling a witness as the preferred means of "dialogue."
Sen . Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) warned Karzai that if he told the committee everything was going well, "the next time you come back, then your credibility will be in question." Hagel said later he felt the administration had "coached" Karzai.
And there was Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) telling him that "police in Herat are detaining women and girls caught alone with unrelated men -- are being forced to submit to medical exams to see if they have had sexual relations." So what about that?
It would have been something if Karzai had pledged to jail Herat strongman Ismail Khan forthwith. Instead, Karzai handled the question with aplomb, talking about how conditions for women were improving.
So Karzai, who every day literally risks his life for the sake of improving the lives of his countrymen, is, in addition to being badgered like a witness on television, made to look like Washington's vassal.
Memo to Iraq's new president when he comes to Washington next year: If Lugar invites you to the Hill, you just repeat the following: S-116, S-116, S-116. Agree to nothing else.
Pay No Mind to the Press Clippings
Meanwhile, Karzai coined a new axis of something during his testimony. "The situation with regard to stability in Afghanistan is better than what you see in the press. In other words, if you're . . . judging the situation in Afghanistan from what you read in The Washington Post or the New York Times or, say, the news from Pakistan . . . that's exactly not the way it is. It's a much brighter picture than you read in the newspapers."
Didn't think he could afford to insult the Paki press like that.
Don't Hold Dinner for Him
Where's Zaldo? It's not as if U.S. special Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad intended to dis Karzai by not showing at an International Republican Dinner in Karzai's honor Wednesday night. Word is Khalilzad, heading the U.S. delegation to a crucial meeting of the Iraqi opposition in rugged northern Iraq, tried as best he could to return in time.
Problem was that the Turks apparently couldn't scare up a chopper to ferry him out of the session to catch a flight here from Turkey. The six-hour drive was not to be endured. There was a request to see what State or the Pentagon could do, but it seems they had priorities greater than the dinner.